‘How Do You Write About Joy?’

It’s about finding presence enough to be here.

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Dear Yanyi,

I want to start off by thanking you for starting and continuing this advice newsletter. Each letter is so thoughtful and warm-hearted. I genuinely feel so happy when I get a notification that a new letter has arrived!

My question is a bit weird but I don’t know how else to express it: how does one write about joy? In my writing workshops we were taught to write about conflict and drama. We read unhappy stories, and learned how that unhappiness was expressed. That was valuable. But now I want to write about joy, and I have no idea where/how to start. For one, I just haven’t read a lot of joyful writing, and I don’t know where to look. If you have any recommendations, I would really appreciate it!

I remember one of my classmates wrote a story about a simple, enjoyable trip she took with her friends. The instructor attacked it repeatedly for its frivolity, and the workshop was spent tearing into the story for that specific reason. I’ve never seen that kind of viciousness for so-called serious stories. It was “lacking” and “boring”.

There are many ways to be, and write, unhappiness. How does one go about the other way? The many ways to be, and write, happiness?

Thank you so much for your care and work <3

Frivolous, lacking, and boring

Dear FLB,

I am so, so sorry to hear about your classmate’s story and the way it was received by your instructor. To put a generous spin on it, your instructor may have been trying to teach you how to write what they perceive to be the “best” kind of work. Unfortunately, it’s experiences like that that scare many writing students from touching certain subjects or experimenting again in their careers—it’s hurtful in how it takes your freedom away, particularly the freedom you would naturally give yourself.

There are some reasons for why your instructor might value “unhappy” writing, as it may have been the case in your class. It could be because of misogyny, where frivolity and the ordinary are relegated to the less serious feminine. It could also be because of the belief that good writing must tackle big, universal issues, issues for which one must suffer or take responsibility for. There has to be a deeper meaning, your instructor might say, or else the writing doesn’t matter.

I started the first part of Dead Poets Society on the plane back from Iceland last month. I had avoided it as one might avoid the things that everyone else says you must know by heart. I am a poet, yes, but a poet of a fictional, white all-boys’ private school? No, I never thought so. But I continue to have things in common with people with whom I feel no allegiance. Such as this quote that I felt was cheesy but also have been thinking of often:

[M]edicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

What brings someone to art and poetry? For me, back in my Xanga days, it was choice quotes like this—quotes more likely to be seen on a random person’s blog than in a literary magazine. For some reason, as one gets deeper into writing, as we accumulate “taste,” we abandon these juvenile, less pure forms of the art we’ve come to love. But why? Have our hearts changed so much that these words are no longer relevant? Or were we all just shamed, either explicitly by our teachers or implicitly by the great stories and poems we seem to encounter?

So that critical voice might say this, too: if I want to be a writer then I can’t like puerile versions of “real” writing. If I want to be an artist, a profession in which it is necessary to play, I have to prove that I’m not merely playing. Yet, this performance is not staged for the art you want to make—perhaps it’s made for the onlookers who you perceive as having power over your access to resources, to love. Perhaps it’s made for onlookers who are waiting for you to slip up, to prove you’re not enough your citizenship or gender. Or perhaps it’s the responsibility you’ve put on yourself in a fragile balancing act: that you can’t play unless you’ve worked; that there’s too much at stake in the world now for you to get off the wire.

But first things first: before you can write about joy, you have to confront the part of you that doesn’t believe you can.

I don’t live in New York City anymore but I can’t stop seeing those videos on social media of water rushing out of toilets and several inches of water destroying the homes of strangers who just as easily could have been my friends. I can’t stop feeling Californian wildfire smoke in my throat all the way here in Vermont. I can’t stop my mind from wandering over to Texas, then Afghanistan, then Louisiana and Haiti.

Joy is hard-won. And increasingly few of us seem to be able to summon it. More of us are, say, mustering energy to live in defiance of racist brutality in thought and action; more of us are worried about where we can live, whether we will have places to live; more of us are not sure if home can remain a home. And around us a pandemic swirls in what seems like perpetuity as Delta and the rest of the Greek alphabet of virus variants keep mutating and infecting. Who, if they were a responsible citizen, would write about joy in these times? What would they write if they could?

Disaster at such a catastrophic scale as this—it silences us. For there’s not you can write to inform when the news is on everyone’s front porch. There are only so many times you can describe desolation in new ways when it’s happening again every day.

The will to survive is obliterating by necessity. Survival requires thinking ahead of thinking ahead. If you’re not careful, it can consume not only the time you’re living in emergencies but also the time between them. Here I’m thinking about what you said: “We read unhappy stories, and learned how that unhappiness was expressed.”

I believe art is a storehouse of experience. It is individually lived but collectively tended. Each person might contribute some sliver to this river of imagination, and in return we drink from its spring to untangle the memories of past lives.

We have models for unhappiness in an unhappy world imagining more unhappinesses. But many of us who have lived with structural oppression for so long can’t remember how to begin with happinesses—where the happy stories are, or how to learn to express them.

I’ve lived my life believing that only the worst is likely to happen. I inherited this belief through my family and then I grew up experiencing it in my own way, the way of my generation and time, and thus have never prepared for savoring the other side of what’s possible.

What do I do when I’m not trying to survive? Can I even imagine it? I still struggle to stop preparing for the next disaster. I’m haunted by history and followed by my memory of the bottom dropping out. But staying here isn’t an option, as much as I’d like to predict the future or allay the past.

The truly imaginative act, in catastrophe, is letting go of the promise of its end. It is to stop waiting for after in order to have now; it is to pause enough at existing where I am so I can acknowledge, and have, true joy. As Lucille Clifton wrote,

come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Or, as Wisława Szymborska said,

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

It’s in these times that joy is more important than ever. To go back to the core of what matters; to remember that there’s not only a way to live, but a reason to live, not after but within all this.

I want to be able to say in the midst of disaster that we also read happy stories, and learned how that happiness was expressed. It could be Ross Gay finding his community at the fig tree on 9th and Christian; it could be a Hallmark card, in memes, or in the jokes you erase for yourself between the pages of a forgotten Victorian book.

Somewhere along the way, joy has been pushed out from the bounds of authenticity. Perhaps because we live in a world where it doesn’t seem real enough—because we live in a world where joy feels more imaginary than ordinary.

In my darkest moments, it was in Carly Rae Jepsen and rom-coms I trusted. I found reasons to live: to feel my laughter bursting from the seams of where I was; to let my soul touch everything I was capable of feeling, to stretch beyond that as much as I could, and celebrating that. You have permission to have this too. You’re alive right now. It’s your turn to pay attention.

Postscript: A prompt for paying attention.

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Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, March 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.